Turmoil, trouble, division, no clear path ahead. The late 1960s. The time when I was finishing high school and campaigning for Richard Nixon, whose “abuse of governmental power” tapes I later would fight to open to fulfill statutory responsibilities handed me as a federal archivist. I worked at the National Archives and Records Administration from 1976 to 1990 (NARA and I).
Part of the challenge for the National Archives in handling records issues is the vast difference in what stakeholders seek. History doesn’t even mean the same thing to everyone, as disputes over the Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library reminded me.
I’m very interested in people, what makes them tick. As usual, I’m reading several books at once. One is Robert Sellers’s Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. Harris unexpectedly became associated with a hit song in 1968, “MacArthur Park.” Listening to it last night took me right back to high school although I never was a part of the counterculture. But I was interested in it as I was interested in fellow students in college the next year whose views on political issues differed from mine.
I guess I’ve never been afraid of anyone for what they think, just immensely curious about people and who they are and why. So, too, my late sister, Eva, who worked from 1983 to 2002 as a supervisory archivist and team leader in NARA’s records declassification division. Eva drew some great sketches of students of all political persuasions as we observed meetings and demonstrations on campus in Washington, D.C. between 1969 and 1973 during our undergraduate years. Some day when I have time I will look for them and write about why some people view each other as cartoonish villains or mythic figures and others are unafraid of their fellow citizens.
“I don’t think that I can take it, ’cause it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again. . . .” The late 1960s was a time that tested people in many ways. Some dropped out. Some, like me, decided to enter public service. Some of it has been tough but I’ve never thought, “I don’t think that I can take it.” But the opening of the song certainly is evocative of my youth for me. “Spring was never waiting for us. . . .”
Some subjects of biographies reveal more about themselves than others do. Edmund Morris discussed that in an article in The Toledo Blade to which my friend David Emig recently linked on Facebook. Morris observed, “All characters are going to have areas of secrecy and mystery which just cannot be penetrated. The challenge is to acknowledge this ultimate impossibility of really penetrating into the soul of anybody. And some characters are more mysterious and enigmatic than others.” Morris pointed to Ronald Reagan, for whom I voted, as having no curiosity about himself. A year ago I shook my head over the approach his Presidential Library has taken in some areas of public outreach. It is possible to vote for someone and yet to embrace candid examination of his actions and choices.
If some people have more hidden parts than others, the same is true of institutions and the organizations within them. NARA’s National Declassification Center has a blog at which several bloggers (Don McIlwain, A. J. Daverede, Neil Carmichael, David Mengel) have put up good posts which explain operations and activities. I’ve known the top officials and managers in NDC for years. The functional unit within the National Archives that deals with secrecy — national security classified records — has been admirably open about explaining how it works and what its goals and objectives are. Last June, I enjoyed a “Know Your Records” briefing done by Neil at Archives 1. And in August, I attended the NDC Open Forum moderated by Executive for Agency Services Jay Bosanko.
The NDC is part of what I call the strong side of the house at the National Archives. The weak side (presidential libraries) has no such blog nor could it ever have one. I’ve advised against it, as some of its stakeholders signal needs that work against openness about operations. How could it, when its history includes the reported comment by an archivist to White House officials, “our job is to make you look good?” There is room for improvement, absolutely. But presidential libraries seem unable “to work the steps,” as they say in AA. Some of their stakeholders (who range from the weaker to the stronger) tell us so very much, perhaps without intending to! They come from a very tough environment–the political world. A different acculturation from the academic.
The bedrock of openness is an acceptance of sunshine, of having the confidence that what you do and why can withstand scrutiny. There never can be “one NARA” in that sense, because not all units are equal in their ability to withstand sunlight.
And then there is a gray area that has developed between different sides of the NARA house, unexpectedly. I was startled to see the Prologue blog turn over its space to a former political appointee so she could put up a guest blog post recently. The essay actually is interesting but I don’t know that this was the forum for it.
A slippery slope? Perhaps. NARA has always pointed to the impartiality and objectivity of its employees. They know how to craft presentations with the need to protect NARA in mind. Some do better than others, but sophisticated readers know that is the intent and objective so they factor that in.
Outsiders? Different acculturation. And how do you decide who among political appointees you hand over space to and whom you deny it to, any way? Much less more objective historians who write about such outsiders? Do they get opportunities to offer their perspectives at Prologue, too? Or is NARA telling us, “we’ve handed this person the keyboard, accept their version and tough if you want to hear others.” Tricky. I’m all for hearing the individual interpretations of players who once worked in Washington. I’m just not sure how using NARA’s own blogs as a platform for that is going to work out.
Can I get away with saying this at my blog? All together now: of course! An open, learning organization embraces listening. If NARA’s transformation effort is to have true meaning (and I want it to), then listening has to be a key component. I value listening, talking, feedback, myself. Always have. It’s what has enabled me to grow and develop over my lifetime.
I never was the dark figure I once was painted to be by some in the old Office of Presidential Libraries, Inspector General complaints or not! That I once was depicted as such speaks volumes, not just about the past, but some parts of NARA’s present and perhaps its future. All part of the record! Social media has its limitations. But for me, as well as for units such as the NDC, it has let me show who I am, even if some reach for cartoonish depictions and stereotypes in trying to deal with NARA’s challenging mission.